Why Face Painting Matters

I’ve had several parents write in to our Facebook  page sharing their experiences with face painters at community events and children’s museums. One comment and photo came in, then another, and another. I took a step back to think about why this was important and why parents were sharing this with me. And then it clicked — this was more than the individual choices of these kids.  Face painting is one of the few activities where a service for children is marketed directly to children in real time, and the child present picks the product directly in front of the marketer, with the marketer being able to immediately influence the choice.

Why does this matter?

How many thousands and thousands of kids do you think face painters come in contact with? What messages could and should those people be sending? Several parents have written to me saying their daughter was discouraged from getting a sports ball on her cheek, and instead got a yellow flower. Or the little boy who was discouraged from getting a butterfly, until his mom had to step in and defend his choice. When face painters say “Oh, that’s a girl color, you don’t want that” they are directly impacting the child’s imagination and reinforcing gender stereotypes. They are directly using sexism to change what your child thinks.

It seems pretty obvious how sexist the reactions steeped in gender stereotypes are and how they limit our kids. I would like to instead focus on a few fine artists and kiddos who got it right:

A satisfied customer! Tiger Snake Girl.


“I just need to give massive kudos to the lovely woman who painted my daughters face today at Adventure Aquarium. B asked to be a snake, the woman asked if she wanted to be a green snake or another color. B opted to be an orange tiger snake. But she never once suggested the bright pink or purple and told her an tiger snake was an awesome choice!”  — Alicia, PPBB mama

A pigtailed baby jaguar.


“FULL OF AWESOME! I thought you might like to see who was totally full of awesome and getting her face painted as a baby jaguar in a sea of girls all getting their faces painted to be Hawaiian princesses at the local street fair on Sunday… 🙂 (Tallie, in her Full of Awesome Shirt!)”  — Roby, PPBB mama

A very delighted blue butterfly.


“I thought I’d share my son’s photo from the recent Renaissance Faire. We had to fight with the artist to get him the painting he wanted, rather than the “Boy one” she was insisting he would like better. Check out this face, does he look unhappy???” — Morgan, PPBB mama

This is one serious predator!


Natalie (7 yrs) to the face-painter: “I’d like to look like a tiger please.”
Artist: “Ohh, why that? You’re so cute, and you have such a pretty sparkly top on; wouldn’t you like some flowers or a rainbow instead? It would maaaaatch…”
Natalie: “No thank you. This outfit is for when I’m a dancer. The paint is for when I’m a predator. Tulips aren’t very good camouflage in the jungle.”
(You see that the frustrated artist couldn’t help herself and HAD to add some sparkle to Talie’s forehead and nose anyway. I hope it doesn’t glare and scare off all the prey.)” — Rachel, PPBB mama

Childhood is not a time for limitations. Childhood is a time for choices. We need adults to remember to respect and honor that, and pack away our preconceived notions of what boys and girls can and cannot do. In childhood, they should be able to do it all.


  1. And what about the times when the child requests a certain design and the PARENT tries to steer them away from it??? I witnessed this recently. As my child was getting a spiderman face painted on, a little girl walked in and requested a spiderman face as well. Her mother: “Oh you don’t want that…that’s for boys. How about a butterfly or a flower?” I was seething on the otherside of the room. Why can’t the child have spiderman? Luckily, this child had gumption! She looked at her mother like she had 3 heads, and said “WHY would I want a butterfly? I want to be spidergirl and save the world!”
    Full. Of. Awesome.
    This was the first time my child had requested something even remotely boy-ish. Usually, he wants a butterfly or flower, cat or mermaid.

    • Penny –
      Parents do interfere, but that happens all of the time. At toy stores, clothes shopping, picking something out at a rummage sale, asking for the “wrong” toy at McDonalds….parents are HUGELY responsible for continuing (or ending) gender stereotypes.
      I was looking at this more from the marketing perspective, because at a toy store, the toy manufacturer isn’t right there to influence your child. Yes, they do that through packaing and product placement and advertising, but they aren’t right there.

      The little Spidergirl you saw is definitely full of awesome!

  2. Jennifer says:

    I would just like to say that this a reflection of customer service. “I’m here to give you what we sell, not give you what you want.” This mindset makes me crazy!! Enormous kudos to the face painters who give the kids what they want.

  3. Heather N. says:

    my heart is melting for that little blue butterfly, how sweet. <3

  4. Great article. I face paint as part of my business and always leave it up to the child to pick what they want. I always ask what colour they want animal, butterfly or image to be. I loved that when I went into my daughter’s kindergarten class to paint faces on her birthday, most of the boys wanted Mermaid faces like the girls including sparkles… although some of the parents weren’t happy about it. This is their choice and I firmly believe you let their imaginations guide their choices. On a side note… I regularly encouraged parents/grandparents/adults to get their faces done at parties, and they are such a hit with the kids. And I secretly think the adults love it just as much!!!

  5. As a face painter and mother I always encourage children to choose whatever their parents will allow. I am often stopped by parents when a little boy asks for a butterfly or a girl asks for spiderman. I know there are many old school painters out there but, not this mama of three. Kids should be allowed to imagine and pretend like they are the creature that I just painted on them.
    I have a client and her son asks me for a butterfly everytime I see him. At a little league closing ceremonies I painted about 10 hearts with rainbow wings on BOYS. BOys love rainbows just as much as girls and all animals come in male and female form.
    It’s funny that as a painter I have the opposite problem in that the parents don’t want to allow the children to get painted what they want. I huess it may just be a matter of perspective.

  6. I’m a Face painter as well as a make-up artist and I’ve not yet stopped a kid from being what ever they want to be !!!! I may initially suggest “boy” or “girl” themes if the child isnt sure what they want, but if a little girl wants to be spiderman or a boy wants a butterfly I will never say no… I’m there to paint what my clients want… customer is always right .. right?? 🙂

  7. At London zoo the other day my little girl wanted to be a blue rabbit. A *blue* rabbit?? Yes, blue. Erm ok. Let me just work out the colours. And he did a fantastic job. Thank you to that man.

  8. Come to think of it, how odd that we should think of rabbits as pink at all… ?

  9. Christina says:

    I learned this lesson very quickly when my daughter was 4. It wasn’t face painting, but halloween. So, although its not a vendor telling her what to get painted on her face, it was me telling her who she could and couldn’t be for Halloween. She had just seen the movie The Labyrinth and she LOVED it. She immediately asked me if she could be the goblin king for halloween. This was in July. For about two weeks we went back and forth about it. Not arguing, but I wanted to make sure this was what she wanted. So, finally, I thought “well, why the heck not?” And I went about the next 3 months transforming her into David Bowie. Best decision I ever made. She has her own mind. I need to let her use it and not put limitations on it! She was a fabulous Jareth!

    My daughter, doing her best Goblin King impression: http://twitpic.com/natq5

  10. As a professional face painter I have never ever encouraged a child to change their mind based on gender specific designs.

    It is always the parents, usually the dads, who try to persuade their children to get something more in line with traditional gender roles.

    I am so thankful for the parents who let their little boys be pink butterflies and little girls be scary zombies. They make my job so much more satisfying.

    I honestly don’t believe any professional face painter worth their salt would try to discourage such choices. If they do, they aren’t worth your money or time.

  11. Kimberly Herbert says:

    My 2nd grade team was doing face painting at the school carnival. A group of the 4th and 5th grade boys all got butterflies. There is a picture of them in the year book.

    I remember a woman berating my Mom and Aunt for letting my sister and Cousin get their faces painted but not me. Thing was we had been each given X number of tickets and got to choose how to spend them. Mom had asked the artist if we could look at the ingredients to the make up, and it included a common ingredient that I’m allergic to. So I spent my tickets on other things. What could be more fair than that.

    Once mom got it through the woman’s thick head that I was allergic, the woman switched to how they shouldn’t let Sis and Cousin do if I couldn’t because I would be crushed. (News to me) Sis missed out on things, because of my allergies. Time in petting zoos were limited, same with the livestock show at the rodeo. (If we were with just one parent she couldn’t go at all). There was a favorite restaurant, I couldn’t step foot in without turning blue (peanuts everywhere). I landed in the hospital 2x at the Ren Fair – so that was out. Let the kid get her face painted in peace.

  12. We have a face painter who regularly does events at our church. She is amazing. Last time she came for an event, we had more girls with Spiderman faces than boys. In fact, the only boy with a Spidey face, did it that way so that he could match his big sister. 🙂

  13. We face paint quite often at the after school program I work at and I love when kids go “against the grain” in terms of gender stereotypes. One of my favorite stories is a little kindergarten boy who wanted to be a “rainbow superhero” – he got a rainbow face paint mask on with lots of gold glitter and looked fantastic 🙂

  14. As a professional face painter I have to say that I have never imposed my choices on a child… I have to fend off parents who insist on things that the child doesn’t want. I listen to the child NOT the parent. If the little angelic girl wants a zombie with dripping blood that’s what she gets. If the little boy wants a pink sparkly butterfly that is what he gets. Parents are ignored. My rule is that it is the child’s face so they choose.

    In my circles of professional painters I know of NOT ONE that would try to deter a child from their choice.

    This is an activity that is supposed to enhance the child’s imagination not the parent’s bias.

  15. Helen Moon says:

    As a professional face painter – the child is always the one that has the choice, i’ve had battles with parents who the little girl will say “I want to be Spiderman” – the parents/grandparents will say “no you don’t want to be spiderman – what about a fairy or a butterfly”, I look at the child she says she wants to be Spiderman – she walks away as Spiderman.

    I’ve also painted a little boy as a butterfly or a flutterby and a grandfather as a fairy, one of my fave faces ever was a little girl who wanted to be a pink cat, with purple ears and a green nose and orange whiskers – do I care, not at all – we love it when someone doesn’t want the norm.

    Our roles as face painters is to make the childs experience the most enjoyable and memorable experience ever. That’s why we do it, we do it for the smiles from the kids (let me tell you there’s not as much money in it as everyone thinks, and just ask us how much our kits are worth). I’m the same as Shannon, I know of no face-painters who would try and influence a child to get anything just because it suits their gender, in fact most of the battles we have with parents is exactly because of that.

  16. Natalie says:

    I’m also a professional face-painter, and my experience has been similar to that of most of the other painters who’ve posted. If a kid wants something, I will paint it on their face. The only times I haven’t been able to do so are when the parent intervenes, and even then I will always argue for the kid.

    There have been a few times when a kid wants something in the higher price category (since our designs were priced by size) and I’ve modified the official design to fit into the smaller size category. The kid is happy and the parents are happy.

    My favorite painting was a little girl who wanted to be a scaly green monster- she had tusks and fangs and scales and glitter all at once. It was absolutely full of awesome. 😀

  17. Its very true , i myself as a face painter DO NOT stereotype . I allow the children to get whatever they like. The parents always interfere. I cant cout how many times ive had dads/grandfathers come tease thier own child for their choice or a flower or rainbow. I generally say , its ok plenty of boys get flowers or poodles or rainbows. Girls like to be batgirl or dragons. I wish parents would just let their children be children and stop giving them insecurities, or make them second guess their own joys. Its just a face painting. Let them enjoy.

  18. I’m also a face painter and had the same experiences with parents trying to change the kids minds. However one instance stands out in my mind is whe I was painting at a kindergarten class and a little boy wants a butterfly and all his friends around him starts making fun of him. I had to make to othe boys go away and I told him if he wants a butterfly then he is the most creative boy out of his friends and that was amazing!! I did try and help a little more by painting the butterfly green and did gave tiger stripes and cheetah spots on the wings to give it more of a tribal, masclein feel. At the end his friends started to realy like his painting because it was different than everyone else’s.

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